“You Don’t Need to Do This Alone. I’m Here.”

LYNDA COLLINS AND NATASHA BAKHT ARE FRIENDS, COL­LEAGUES AND CO-PAR­ENTS. TO­GETHER, THEY’RE RE­DEFIN­ING WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A FAMILY IN CANADA.

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Contents - BY ME­GAN JONES PHO­TO­GRAPH BY JES­SICA DEEKS

Friends Lynda Collins and Natasha Bakht are re­defin­ing what it means to be a family in Canada to­day. ME­GAN JONES

ON A SUNNY AF­TER­NOON THIS PAST MAY, Lynda Collins and Natasha Bakht are out for a stroll with their son, Elaan. The seven-year-old, who has se­vere dis­abil­i­ties, uses a walker, and he smiles as its wheels click along the side­walk of the family’s down­town Ot­tawa block. A cou­ple of neigh­bours wave. As the trio passes by a day­care, a woman who is su­per­vis­ing out­door play­time calls out a hello.

When Elaan slows, the women take turns perk­ing him up. Bakht, 45, guides him gen­tly, while Collins, 42, stands in front and makes sounds (“Whoosh!”) or calls him by one of his many nick­names (Munchkin, Moop­sie) to en­cour­age him to come to­wards her. It’s a windy day, one of Elaan’s favourite times to be out­side. When­ever the breeze be­comes blus­tery, he breaks into a smile and rolls for­ward with it.

A stranger walk­ing by might as­sume Collins and Bakht are a cou­ple. But the two women have never been ro­man­tic part­ners. In­stead, the “co-ma­mas,” as they call them­selves, have re­de­fined what an in­sti­tu­tion­ally rec­og­nized family can look like in Canada. Af­ter an On­tario court granted them a le­gal dec­la­ra­tion of parent­age in Novem­ber 2016, they be­came the first two peo­ple in the coun­try to of­fi­cially co-par­ent a child pla­ton­i­cally. The dec­la­ra­tion ce­mented what any­one close to them had long known: they, along with Elaan, are in­sep­a­ra­ble.

BAKHT AND COLLINS didn’t plan to be­come a family. In fact, they weren’t par­tic­u­larly close be­fore 2009, when Bakht got preg­nant through as­sisted re­pro­duc­tive tech­nol­ogy us­ing an anony­mous sperm donor. At the time, the women—both law pro­fes­sors at the Univer­sity of Ot­tawa—had been friends and col­leagues go­ing on three years.

Collins, who has a soft spot for ba­bies, asked if she could be Bakht’s birth coach, and they grew closer while prep­ping for Elaan’s ar­rival.

Heather McLeod-Kil­mur­ray, a mu­tual friend and col­league, watched the women’s con­nec­tion take shape. “They were so ex­cited for the baby,” she says, and it was clear from the be­gin­ning that they com­ple­mented each other. “Lynda is the most pos­i­tive per­son and is brim­ming with en­thu­si­asm, but she can also be a bit of a wor­rier,” says McLeod-Kil­mur­ray. “Natasha is very pro­fes­sional and put to­gether. She tack­les chal­leng­ing is­sues with­out wor­ry­ing but ben­e­fits from Lynda’s op­ti­mism.”

In Fe­bru­ary 2010, Elaan was born by emer­gency C-sec­tion. He was beau­ti­ful and frag­ile, weigh­ing just 4 pounds, 13 ounces. Collins was the first per­son to see him. From that point on, “she couldn’t re­ally stay away,” Bakht says, laugh­ing.

Soon af­ter the birth, Bakht left for Toronto to stay with family dur­ing her ma­ter­nity leave. Collins vis­ited monthly and talked with Bakht nearly ev­ery day, but she missed Elaan ter­ri­bly. “I must have spent $100 on iTunes send­ing him songs that I loved that I thought would make him happy,” she says.

When Bakht re­turned to Ot­tawa 10 months later, it had be­come clear that Elaan would have sig­nif­i­cant med­i­cal needs. He was even­tu­ally

di­ag­nosed with periven­tric­u­lar leuko­ma­la­cia—es­sen­tially, por­tions of his brain are dead—lead­ing to lim­ited ver­bal and mo­tor skills. He also suf­fers from fre­quent seizures and asthma. As a baby, he would of­ten scream in pain as his mother fer­ried him to ap­point­ments, some­times strain­ing so hard that he’d vomit or burst blood ves­sels in his eyes. Bakht found her­self over­whelmed.

“One day I said to Lynda, I don’t know how I’m go­ing to do this by my­self,” she re­calls.

Maybe it was be­cause she re­mem­bered how much she’d missed Elaan dur­ing their time apart, but Collins didn’t hes­i­tate be­fore re­spond­ing.

“You don’t need to. I’m here.”

THERE WERE SMALL SIGNS at first. By 2011, Collins was at Bakht’s place ev­ery day; she even­tu­ally de­cided it was eas­ier to move into the neigh­bour­hood and then the same apart­ment build­ing. When Elaan was two, he was hos­pi­tal­ized un­ex­pect­edly. Collins was sched­uled to speak on a panel in a dif­fer­ent city. She can­celled im­me­di­ately.

Still, they didn’t rec­og­nize their emerg­ing dy­namic un­til some­one else pointed it out. In 2013, the friends were hav­ing din­ner with a col­league at Bakht’s apart­ment, and Collins men­tioned that she lived else­where. The guest was con­fused—she’d as­sumed her co-work­ers were dat­ing. If they weren’t a cou­ple, what were they? The pair ex­plained their sit­u­a­tion and were thrilled when they heard their col­league’s non­cha­lant re­ply: “Oh,” she said. “So you’re a family.”

Nev­er­the­less, it took some time be­fore Collins saw her­self as a mother. She had be­gun to con­sider adopt­ing a child of her own but wor­ried she might not be able to han­dle sin­gle par­ent­hood.

One day in 2014, while hik­ing in nearby Gatineau Park, she had a re­al­iza­tion. “I thought, Why would I adopt a stranger when I al­ready have Elaan? It was a mo­ment of clar­ity.”

She wasted no time. Later that even­ing, while she and Bakht were feed­ing Elaan, Collins asked her friend the ques­tion: How would you feel about me adopt­ing your son? Af­ter sit­ting in si­lence for a while, Bakht blurted out, “Yes.” Collins had, af­ter all, been moth­er­ing Elaan for years, and it was ob­vi­ous that he re­lated to her as a par­ent.

IN 2014, LYNDA COLLINS HAD A MO­MENT

OF CLAR­ITY.

WHY WOULD SHE ADOPT A STRANGER IF SHE AL­READY HAD ELAAN?

It would be nearly two more years be­fore Collins re­ceived for­mal recog­ni­tion. The le­gal process was fairly smooth; life pro­vided the hur­dles. First, Elaan was in and out of hos­pi­tal, then Collins’s grand­mother was dy­ing. Gath­er­ing the re­quired tes­ti­monies from friends, col­leagues and Elaan’s sup­port net­work took time. But in April 2016, the pair sub­mit­ted their ap­pli­ca­tion to the On­tario Court of Jus­tice, and seven months later, they re­ceived their dec­la­ra­tion of parent­age.

While their case was the first of its kind, it didn’t set a le­gal prece­dent. Soon af­ter the dec­la­ra­tion, On­tario passed the All Fam­i­lies Are Equal Act, de­signed to make parent­age for peo­ple who were us­ing as­sisted re­pro­duc­tion eas­ier. The new act meant Collins and Bakht’s case was im­pos­si­ble to re­peat. It stip­u­lates that in­di­vid­u­als need to form the in­tent to par­ent be­fore con­cep­tion. As a re­sult, pla­tonic par­ents who de­cide to form a family af­ter a child is con­ceived would likely have to go through their own court pro­ceed­ings.

Collins and Bakht wish this weren’t so. While they be­lieve the act was well in­ten­tioned and pro­gres­sive, they don’t think would-be par­ents should be lim­ited by tim­ing. Still, they hope their case will act as a so­cial prece­dent, mak­ing the le­gal process less in­tim­i­dat­ing for the next set of pla­tonic par­ents. PLA­TONIC PAR­ENT­ING as a con­cept isn’t new—think of a grand­mother help­ing to raise her grand­child—but most of the re­search on the sub­ject fo­cuses on for­mer cou­ples par­ent­ing to­gether. As such, it’s im­pos­si­ble to pin­point how many peo­ple are in­for­mally in­volved in ar­range­ments like Collins and Bakht’s. How­ever, sites such as Co­par­ents.com, which match strangers with prospec­tive sperm donors, as well as pla­tonic part­ners look­ing to start fam­i­lies, point to a grow­ing trend. Co­par­ents.com has 88,000 reg­is­tered users world­wide; a sim­i­lar site called Mo­dam­ily.com has 2,500 Cana­dian users.

Bakht is pleased peo­ple are open­ing up to the idea of co-par­ent­ing. While many sin­gle par­ents thrive, she likes the idea that those who want as­sis­tance might se­cure it with­out hav­ing to also find a ro­man­tic part­ner. Collins’s help has al­lowed her to be­come a bet­ter mother, she says. Prac­ti­cally, hav­ing a sec­ond par­ent

“ANY­BODY COM­ING INTO MY LIFE HAS TO

REC­OG­NIZE THAT THEY GET ME, THE CHILD AND

HIS OTHER MOTHER,” SAYS NATASHA BAKHT.

has dou­bled Elaan’s in­sur­ance cov­er­age, which has been cru­cial, given his med­i­cal needs. Emo­tion­ally, raising a child with a dis­abil­ity can be de­mand­ing; when­ever Bakht gets frus­trated, her pal can step in.

Both women have also gained sup­port from each other’s ex­tended fam­i­lies. “The le­gal co-par­ent­ing changed things only in law,” Collins’s fa­ther, Frank, says. “Elaan has been a child and a grand­child to us all from the be­gin­ning.”

“Lynda loves re­fer­ring to her­self as his mother,” he says. “Hav­ing a child in her life has added a di­men­sion that maybe she didn’t even re­al­ize had been miss­ing.”

In the evenings, Collins takes out her acoustic gui­tar so the moms can sing for Elaan—kids’ songs like “Baa Baa Black Sheep” or clas­sics like “Lean on Me.” On the week­ends, they visit the play­ground to gen­tly rock on a swing. Of­ten, the friends trade nerdy law jokes, and Elaan cracks up at the sound of their laugh­ter.

Their life may be sweet, but it’s not un­com­pli­cated. Nei­ther mother has ruled out a se­ri­ous re­la­tion­ship, for ex­am­ple, and both un­der­stand this will likely be a point of ne­go­ti­a­tion in the fu­ture. “Any­body com­ing in has to rec­og­nize that they don’t only get me and the child, but his other mother,” Bakht says.

The friends ex­pe­ri­ence pro­saic mo­ments of con­flict, over par­ent­ing or sim­ply when one of them for­gets to wipe down the sink. In times of ir­ri­ta­tion, they give each other space, then com­mu­ni­cate. “We’re quick to turn things around,” Bakht says. “Nei­ther of us likes that an­gry feel­ing—”

“It’s aw­ful,” Collins jumps in. (The women of­ten fin­ish one an­other’s thoughts.) “We can’t func­tion with­out each other, so it’s not like we could be mad for long.”

IN MAY, Bakht and Collins threw a big party to cel­e­brate their family’s of­fi­cial sta­tus, pack­ing ap­prox­i­mately 100 peo­ple into a com­mu­nity-cen­tre gym­na­sium for an af­ter­noon of danc­ing and In­dian food. Loved ones pushed Elaan around in his wheelchair to the mu­sic, a playlist cu­rated by Collins weeks in ad­vance. (She made sure to in­clude Sis­ter Sledge’s “We Are Family.”)

To­wards the end of the gath­er­ing, the two women made speeches, thank­ing their guests and, even­tu­ally, each other.

“I won’t pre­tend to have the words to prop­erly con­vey what you mean to me,” Collins told Bakht. “Your kind­ness, gen­eros­ity, light-heart­ed­ness, bril­liance and re­silient good hu­mour have taught me so much and brought so much joy into my life. And by shar­ing your son, you made me a mother. ‘Thank you’ seems a lit­tle in­ad­e­quate. So I’ll just plan to spend the rest of my life mak­ing both of you happy.”

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